What Is Standards-Based Reform?

The theory of action behind standards-based reform is to create a coherent policy structure linking academic standards, student assessments, and accountability for results to drive positive student outcomes.

By defining what students need to know and do in a set of academic standards, the rest of the state’s education system can be designed to align with those goals. While standards are not a curriculum, the standards should inform the development of curricular and instructional materials and the training educators receive on using them, so that students are taught in ways that help them reach the new benchmarks. Next, assessments are required to determine whether students are meeting established standards and whether schools are making sufficient progress in helping them get there. Information from these assessments can then be used by educators and policymakers to design interventions and strategies to help schools improve and evaluate how well they work. Accountability is the final piece of the standards-based reform puzzle, establishing consequences, rewards, supports, or other incentives based on students’ performance and progress over time against the standards. When weak performance can trigger consequences, it sends a strong signal to systems, schools, and educators to examine their performance data closely and consider altering how they deliver instruction. According to the theory of action, standards-based reform without accountability is less likely to spur meaningful changes, because the incentives to evaluate educational practice and make difficult, but necessary, choices are weakened—or non-existent.1

  1. Research has also shown that accountability—with consequences—like the systems required by NCLB are more likely to lead to positive student outcomes than accountability systems based primarily on public reporting of data. See, for example: Thomas Dee and Brian Jacob, “The impact of no Child Left Behind on student achievement” J. Pol. Anal. Manage., 30: 418–446. (2011): accessed February 8, 2015, http://www.nber.org/papers/w15531.pdf;
    Martin Carnoy and Susanna Loeb, “Does External Accountability Affect Student Outcomes? A Cross-State Analysis,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis. 24 (4) (2002): 305-331; and
    Eric A. Hanushek and Margaret E. Raymond, “Does School Accountability Lead to Improved Student Performance?” Journal of Policy Analysis and Management 24(2) (2005): p. 297-327, accessed February 8, 2015, http://hanushek.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/publications/hanushek%2Braymond.2005%20jpam%2024-2.pdf.
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